Towards sustainable development: from the inside out

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Towards sustainable development: from the inside out

Written by Marty Bortz | 18th July 2023

As social impact practitioners, we are all interested in bringing about a better world. To do this, we typically focus outwardly on changing systems, processes and organisations. This is, of course, vital. At the same time, there is growing recognition that these forms of change are not, on their own, enough. Rather, we must also look inwards. As part of this, the Inner Development Goals (IDGs) are emerging as an important (and necessary) approach to change generally and, more specifically, to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Adopted by the United Nations in 2015, the 17 SDGs help organisations create a more peaceful and prosperous world in areas such as education, equality, climate change, and sustainable cities and communities. Given their focus on organisations and institutions, the utility of the SDGs doesn’t extend to the role of personal growth in shaping the world around us.

There is growing recognition that we are falling far behind the targets set by the SDGs. A growing movement is therefore beginning to argue that, to address this shortfall, we need to change the underlying thought patterns, beliefs and values of society. Systemic change isn’t enough. We also need to change ourselves.

‘You don’t need to change the world. You need to change yourself.’ Miguel Ruiz

This is why I have been very encouraged by the recent emergence of the IDGs. Developed by a consortium of universities, for-purpose organisations, philanthropists, and leaders in social change, the IDGs describe the growth needed at the individual level to meet the SDGs.

The IDGs are arranged around five domains:

  • Being: Relationship to self
  • Thinking: Cognitive skills
  • Relating: Caring for others and the world
  • Collaborating: Social skills
  • Acting: Driving change

Each domain is linked to a set of underlying outcomes and indicators to allow us to assess progress over time.

Importantly, the IDGs hypothesise the inherent skills, attributes and capacities that individuals need to meet the SDGs. These capacities are framed in terms of individuals’ relationship with themselves, with other people, and with the external world.

‘Personal growth will cause a ripple effect as the growth in consciousness of enough people, one by one, can create general change, and lasting social improvements.' Bud Harris

History provides us with evidence of the catalytic role that internal growth can play in social change. For instance, in The Nordic Secret, Lene Rachel Anderson and Tomas Bjorkman describe in exquisite detail how the Nordic countries drew from German traditions of self-cultivation (captured in the concept of Bildung) to escape dire economic circumstances and become the thriving democracies they are today. As part of this, society was (re)built from the bottom up with real change beginning in the mind – both collective and individual.

We can also look further back in history to what Karl Jaspers has famously called the Axial Age, which, according to Jaspers, ran from 500–300BCE. The Axial Age was the time during which the seeds of many of today’s major religions were planted. This included Buddhism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism. Platonism, which was a major influence on Christianity, also developed during this period.

The emergence of these schools of thought was in response to several structural crises in society, including violent competition between states; population growth because of improved productive techniques; and breakdown of the family-clan as the central organising unit in society.

Several commentators and scholars have also pointed to the Renaissance as a response to some of the crises facing Italy, including invasions by France, Spain and Germany in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. According to historian Alison Brown, these triggered an underlying crisis of confidence in the humanist culture of Italy at the time.

The challenges we are facing today are significant. They will require a great deal of effort to address. New (and better) institutions and organisations are a key aspect of this work. However, without deeper change at the individual level we risk reproducing the same problems that put us here in the first place.

The SDGs have set a target date of 2030, which isn’t very far away at all. With indications that we are not on track, we need to do something different. Rather than just looking externally, we also need to look inside ourselves to bring about new global patterns of thought. While more work is needed, the IDGs are a new and promising development towards this deeper change – a development that should be taken seriously.